In this article:
- Most people have seen the famous painting of the guy whose face is made entirely of fruits and vegetables, but very few people know the name of its creator: Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
- Arcimboldo was a court portraitist for several Holy Roman Emperors who painted traditional portraits of royal and religious figures.
- But he also made imaginative portraits of faces made from fruits, vegetables, books, flowers, fish, and other animals.
- Among Arcimboldo’s most famous paintings are Vertumnus (1591), The Librarian (1566), Four Seasons in One Head (1590), The Jurist (1566), The Vegetable Gardener (1590), and The Fruit Basket (1590).
Milan-born Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo is one of those artists whose work nearly everyone has seen — like that one American Gothic painting or Botero’s fat figures — yet no one outside of art collectors and art history students seems to know their name.
Maybe the name Giuseppe Arcimboldo doesn’t ring any bells for you. But, think about this: have you ever seen that portrait of the guy whose face is made entirely of fruits and vegetables? I bet that rings a bell with quite a few more people.
Yes, that famous painting of the man whose face is made of produce is actually Vertumnus by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, painted in 1591.
Arcimboldo’s career took off in 1562 when he became a court portraitist for Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I at the Habsburg court in Vienna, Austria. Much of the work he did as a court portraitist involved painting traditional portraits of royal and religious figures.
However, what really caught the eye of his contemporaries (and fascinates people to this day) were his imaginative portraits of heads made entirely from fruits, vegetables, books, flowers, fish, and other animals.
Unlike some other artists, it seemed as if Arcimboldo’s talents were pretty well-appreciated in his day.
In fact, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was such a fan of Arcimboldo’s signature style that he allowed him to paint the emperor as a head made entirely of fruits and vegetables. This was the origin of the Vertumnus piece that would be Arcimboldo’s most lasting work.
And, while Vertumnus is certainly the most well-known piece by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the artist produced many other paintings in his trademark style. So, for the sake of remembering the life and works of this amazing artist who died in 1593, here are the six best pieces from Giuseppe Arcimboldo:
Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Most Famous Faces
Two years before his death, Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted Vertumnus, which would become the most well-known work of his career. The painting depicts Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, reimagined as the Roman god Vertumnus.
Being the god of seasonal change and plant growth, it only made sense that Arcimboldo should depict the god as a seasonal harvest arranged into the shape of a face. Included in the face are vegetables and fruits including pears, apples, artichokes, corn, grapes, pomegranates, and many more.
The painting is also meant to represent the abundance that had returned under the rule of Rudolf II. It’s also meant to represent peace and harmony in the empire. So, in that way, it was a sort of propaganda.
In fact, though, Rudolf II was not a particularly popular emperor among the people and his reign was not a very prosperous time.
The Librarian (1566)
Many have speculated that Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s The Librarian, which he produced in 1566, is a painting of Wolfgang Lazius, a well-known humanist and historian of the time who served the Holy Roman Emperors of the House of Habsburg.
Some have interpreted the painting as a celebration of the librarian profession while others have seen it as a mockery.
Certain critics have asserted that, since it looks as if the subject of the painting is hoarding the books, Arcimboldo meant to mock those who are more interested in amassing large book collections for vanity than actually reading them.
The painting utilizes many of the items that would be typically seen in libraries during that time to construct the face. For instance, Arcimboldo constructed the beard from what appear to be animal tails, which were used by librarians to dust off books.
Four Seasons in One Head (1590)
Also composed toward the end of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s life, Four Seasons in One Head, which was painted in 1590, is seen by many as an acknowledgment by the artist that he was in the final stages of his life.
He had lived through the four seasons of life and was trying to combine the symbolism of spring, summer, autumn, and winter in one portrait. The result was one of Arcimboldo’s most fascinating and thought-provoking works.
The tree trunk and the fungi growing from it form a mouth that appears twisted and sad. Additionally, the overall mood of the painting is dark, moody, and sullen.
These elements are meant to represent the coldness and bitterness of winter, the stage of life the artist was in when he painted Four Seasons in One Head. The season of autumn are represented by the grapes, apples, and ivy on the head. The wheat and flowers give the painting a contrasting lightness and they also represent the fertile seasons of spring and summer.
Overall, Four Seasons in One Head can be seen as an attempt to represent the entire life of the artist in one painting.
The Jurist (1566)
At one point during his career, Giuseppe Arcimboldo worked as a court painter for Maximilian II. It was at this time, in 1566, that Arcimboldo created The Jurist, which is also sometimes known as The Lawyer.
This painting is meant to depict a member of the legal profession, but no one is entirely sure who exactly the painting was based on.
Based on the fact that one of the subject’s cheeks appears swollen, some have asserted that the painting was based on the vice-chancellor to Maximilian II, who had a congenital swelling on one of his cheeks.
Regardless of who the painting was based on, they were not depicted very favorably.
The overall mood of the painting seems aggressive and angry. The head of the subject, which forms of a sneering expression, is made up of fish and poultry. The body of the subject is made from books and legal documents.
The Vegetable Gardener (1590)
Near the end of his career, Arcimboldo produced a series of paintings of reversible heads that appeared to be traditional still-life paintings when turned one way but changed into human faces when turned another way.
The Vegetable Gardener, finished in 1590, is the most famous piece from this series. When held one way, it appears as a still-life of a bowl of vegetables, including onions, garlic, radish, and mushrooms. However, when you turn it upside-down, it clearly appears as a human face wearing a hat.
Some have asserted that, hidden within the face, there are some references to the male and female genitals. Thus, some have posited that the face is meant to depict Priapus, a minor Roman god of fertility.
Priapus is the god of fruit plants, gardens, and male genitalia. He is usually depicted with a giant, permanent erection.
The Fruit Basket (1590)
Similar to The Vegetable Gardener, another one of Arcimboldo’s most famous paintings was also a reversible head.
In The Fruit Basket, the face is ingeniously disguised as a basket full of apples, grapes, pears, pomegranates, and other fruits. However, when turned upside-down, The Fruit Basket appears as a rosy-cheeked male face.
Among his series of reversible heads, this painting may work the best as both a still-life and a portrait. When viewing the painting with the basket on the bottom, one would never assume that it would form a face when turned upside-down.
Additionally, when the painting is turned so that the basket is at the top, it very clearly forms a human’s face.